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The Game of Nations

By Jim Hoagland
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, July 9, 1998; Page A19

The nation-state is alive and kicking on the soccer fields of France this World Cup summer.

Born in France a millennium ago as the fundamental political unit of the international system, the nation-state has supposedly been laid terminally low in this decade by the march of globalization and national fragmentation. National structures no longer correspond to the economic and political forces that computers and other technology have unleashed, it is solemnly and repeatedly said and written.

Perhaps. But hundreds of spirited, fleet players and hundreds of thousands of flag-waving fans from 32 countries have spent the past month glorying in an international soccer tournament that seems designed to prove that nations, and the games they play as nations, still count in the global era.

CIA operative Miles Copeland titled his minor Cold War classic on espionage "The Game of Nations." But today that game is not spying, or even baseball. The game of nations is soccer. No other activity or contest short of war shows the enduring strength of nationalism as clearly as the World Cup tournament, which concludes with its epic championship match on Sunday.

No offense meant to the American pastime, to pro football, basketball or the other sports that we Americans worship and dominate. They too are national glories.

But as a nation-continent, Americans take for granted much that the European inventors of the nation-state have had to strive to achieve and constantly defend. Mobility, patience and stealth have been key factors of survival in the crowded European landscape, as they are in soccer.

Americans do not compete seriously against other nations in team sports. We are too strong in those we have pioneered and too weak in sports others have developed for either to matter much in our nation-building. Americans do not put their national identity on the line in close matches that are shaped by centuries or decades of mutual animosity, alliance or adversity.

The Olympics did once provide for Americans and Russians some of the feel of national conflict present in World Cup matches, as England meets Argentina on a virtual repeat battlefield or Germany is upset by its upstart protege, Croatia. But the national competition within the Olympics was always, happily, overshadowed by the individual accomplishments of the Olympic athletes.

Many Europeans, Latin Americans and Africans see World Cup soccer in existential terms. They assert on the playing fields the vitality of their cultures, languages and ways of life. Decolonized lands of the Third World gain political confidence with their acceptance into, and victories over, the ranks of the established.

"You should be glad that Iran won," an Iranian-born friend told me after the U.S. team went down to defeat in the World Cup opening round. "How can the ayatollahs maintain that the Great Satan is out to ruin them when you can't even beat them in soccer? This will lower tensions."

Perspective has been one of the great values of this year's uncommonly exciting World Cup. The matches have thrilled the fans; I suspect they have also redefined the way many think about some other countries. On its best days, the competition has taken nationalism out of a uniquely political focus and given it another, more appealing face.

Take Paraguay. One name would have in the past quickly come to my mind on mention of that South American country: Alfredo Stroessner, the dictator who ruled there for decades. No longer. Say Paraguay this summer, and Jose Luis Chilavert flashes on my mental screen.

Chilavert is the talented goalkeeper of the Paraguayan team who valiantly kept a strong French team at bay in a double-overtime game before surrendering a lone, losing goal. Then, in his most manly act of the day, Chilavert consoled his grief-stricken teammates like a father comforting children at a family funeral.

The strong Nigerian team reminded me of all the fun and pizazz of West Africa, which is usually represented by daily headlines about the region's appalling, abusive governments. And it was good to see Yugoslavs on the television screen who seemed not cut in the mold of Slobodan Milosevic.

Character is the bedrock of sports as it is national survival. It surfaces under the most trying and demanding of circumstances.

In the World Cup you are chosen to play on the team of your country of citizenship, not of residence or employment. You reach the height of your career because of national identity and skills. Both have been on display, in the healthiest of ways, in France over the past month.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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